DENVER — The Denver Nuggets defeated the short-handed Los Angeles Clippers 129-114 Thursday night in front of an enthusiastic Pepsi Center crowd. The win inches Denver closer to securing the eighth and and final playoff spot in the Western Conference and making their first postseason appearance since 2013.
“Obviously a very good win for us offensively,” head coach Michael Malone said. “This is who we’ve been. I think we had 31 assists.”
The Nuggets controlled this game throughout, maintaining a near double digit lead through most of the night. Of course, Denver was playing against a shorthanded Clippers squad who traveled to the Mile High City without big-men Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
However, it wasn’t all roses and sunshine for the Nuggets. Denver struggled to contain Los Angeles defensively, giving up 68-points in the second half.
“I thought our defense was awful,” Malone said. “In the fourth quarter, they shot 80 percent. In the second half, they shot 60 percent. We have to learn when we build a lead we have to create good habits and our defense in the second half was not where it needs to be moving forward…big picture, I think our defense took a big step back tonight.
Meanwhile, forward Kenneth Faried returned to the lineup for the first time in eight games after experiencing severe back spasms. He played well in his return appearance, finishing the night with 12-points, 1 assist, and 6 rebounds in 17.58 minutes of action.
“I’m just happy to be back out there with those guys going to war each and every night,” Faried said. “Watching them from the back was kind of hard. Even watching them from the floor was kind of hard. Just to get out there tonight, it was fun and exciting for me. I felt like a kid again.”
Faried played well. However, center Nikola Jokic and guard Will Barton were the real stars of the game for Denver.
Barton played his second good game in a row, scoring 35-points to lead the game in points. A down stretch last week had prompted a pep talk from head coach Michael Malone. Now, it appears all is right for the 26-year-old.
“I’m just trying to be aggressive to help the team any way I can to win games” Barton said. “I just told myself I’m just going to be aggressive and let the chips fall.”
Jokic continued to show why he’s rapidly becoming one of the most exciting big-men in basketball. The snaky Serbian posted the fifth triple double of his season, scoring 17-points, pulling in 14-rebounds, and passing for 11-assists.
The 22-year-old has put together enough nights like this throughout the season that his success has stopped surprising his teammates and coaches. They almost expect him to play that way.
“He’s a guy that we feature a lot,” Malone said. “He’s a real playmaker.”
The Nuggets desperately needed this game as they continue their push towards the eighth and final playoff seed in the Western Conference. With 14 games to go, Denver remains in control of their own postseason destiny.
They lead old friend Jusuf Nurkic and the Portland Trailblazers by 2.5 games in the hunt for the eighth seed, and while they won’t all admit to scoreboard watching, there’s no doubt they’re keeping a close eye on the upper northwest.
“I can’t lie, we see it,” Barton said. “We score watch a little bit, but the main thing is just focusing on us. If we win our games it doesn’t matter what anyone else does. So, all we’re focused on is giving big time effort and winning as many games as possible.”
Heading into the week, this game looked like it would be one of the tougher ones Denver would have to play. Instead, it turned into an easy win.
They’ll need the same kind of luck this Saturday night as they try to continue their playoff push on the final game of this home-stand. Denver will host the very dangerous Houston Rockets, led by MVP candidate James Harden. The Nuggets are expected to come in as heavy underdogs in that game, making tonight’s win against the Clippers just that much more crucial.
“Competing—I think that’s the main thing,” Barton said. “I feel like when we compete we can play when anyone in the league. We’ve got to go out there, play Nuggets basketball, compete, and get after it.”